There's been an odd development in what's been a strange year for the Canadian Football League in 2021.
One of the CFL's biggest draws — and what is often used as an argument in favour of the three-down game over the NFL — is that offences often beat up on defences. In other words, high-scoring games are synonymous with the league, and a major reason why fans tune in.
After all, most people like to see momentum-shifting drives that are filled with exciting plays and, ultimately, touchdowns. But that hasn't exactly been the case this season; in fact, scoring isn't just down but way down compared to recent years.
So, what gives?
"That's a great question," Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros said earlier this week. "I haven't watched a ton of teams, except for the teams that we're preparing against. You got to give a lot of credit to defensive co-ordinators and the defences out there. Guys are playing their schemes really well and making it difficult to score points. Hopefully, that obviously changes."
Through four weeks and 15 total games played in 2021, the average points scored per game is 38. Compare that to the first four weeks into the 2019 campaign — which was the last CFL season to be played after 2020 was wiped out owing to COVID-19 — and the nearly 56 points scored per game that year and it's a decrease of 18 points. Or, to put it another way, a difference or more than two touchdowns and a field goal.
It's the same story for the 2018, 2017 and 2016 seasons, where the average points scored in a game were 48.5, 53.6, and 50.3, respectively. In a league where rules are constantly being tailored to favour the offence, in order to produce more excitement, it's a bit of a head scratcher, even if it's been an odd season.
"It's just one of those things where you take so much time off and it takes time to get things clicking on all cylinders." — Bombers running back, Andrew Harris
That said, many players went almost two years without playing games, as COVID-19 ravaged the entire world, even shutting down training facilities. Heading into the season, the idea of players having to shake off rust was a major storyline.
"Maybe just out of rhythm," Bombers running back Andrew Harris said. "As the season goes along here, I think scores will probably open up a little more. But, yeah, it's just one of those things where you take so much time off and it takes time to get things clicking on all cylinders. It's going to be one of those things that as the season goes along, offences will be a lot more productive and see a lot more success."
Jackson Jeffcoat echoed a very similar sentiment. The Bombers defensive end isn't complaining about it, though, not with Winnipeg leading the way, allowing a league-low 14.8 points per game to its opponents. But he did add the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the team the Bombers are playing this weekend in the annual Labour Day clash, hasn't had the same problem.
The Roughriders average the most points in the CFL, with 28.7 per game, and are the only remaining undefeated team, at 3-0 (the Bombers are 3-1).
"Guys being off that long, the offences are getting things going slower," Jeffcoat said. "But if you watch Saskatchewan, they haven't had those struggles. So, we've got a good opponent ahead of us and it's an exciting challenge."
With more than 10 years coaching experience and 15 years before that as a player in the CFL, Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea has seen a lot in the three-down game. He certainly studies the game meticulously, but points per game patterns don't seep into his work sessions.
Still, he came up with a few different ideas, with some interesting notes, including where the points are coming from. While the offences account for much of the scoring, other areas, such as kick return touchdowns and interceptions for scores have also plummeted this year.
"Last season the return game was up through the first part of the season and I'm sure there was more defensive touchdowns, probably," O'Shea said. "I don't see a lot of teams scoring defensively right now. I don't see a lot of special teams points right now."
O'Shea was certainly onto something. While there's been 15 games so far this season, only Montreal's Mario Alford has a return touchdown, which came off a punt. That means there's been zero kickoff-return touchdowns and none from missed field goals. In 2019, through the first four weeks there were four, offering up at least part of an explanation to the drop in overall scoring.
On the defensive side, though, there has already been three touchdowns — two off interceptions and one a fumble recovered for a score. In 2019, that number was at four.
"You got to factor in there was no exhibition games, either," O'Shea said. "So, execution might be a little lacking right now. But I don't know."
It's at that point O'Shea, a Hall-of-Fame linebacker, offered up another point, one that suggests whatever is happening early into the 2021 season is no problem at all. You even get the feeling he's looking at low-scoring games as a good thing, as perhaps a new normal.
"I think fans love defensive battles," he said. "Isn't that what people are looking for?"
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.